Obama Selects Alabama Physician Regina Benjamin for Surgeon General

By Christine Cupaiuolo — July 14, 2009

regina_bejaminAs if Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing wasn’t enough news for one day, President Obama on Monday announced the nomination of Dr. Regina Benjamin — a family doctor who runs a rural clinic in Alabama where close to half of the patients are uninsured — for surgeon general.

It seems like an inspired choice. Here’s some background, from the Chicago Tribune:

Benjamin in 1995 became the first black woman and the youngest doctor elected to serve on the board of the American Medical Assn. In 2008 she received a MacArthur Fellowship “genius” grant supporting her efforts to treat her patients in the Gulf Coast region regardless of their ability to pay.

Benjamin received her medical education through the National Health Service Corps, a federal program that covers medical students’ tuition in exchange for work in underserved areas.

In 1990 she founded a rural health clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala., a Gulf Coast village of about 2,500, many of whom lack health insurance. About a third of the community’s residents are immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Since founding the clinic, Benjamin has worked to rebuild it three times: in 1998 after it was devastated by Hurricanes Georges; in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina; and more recently after it was destroyed by a fire.

Benjamin is a graduate of Xavier University, Morehouse School of Medicine and the University of Alabama School of Medicine. She obtained her MBA at Tulane University. Her clinic bio states she is a board member of Physicians for Human Rights; her tenure there was from 1996 to 2002.

A committed advocate of prevention programs, Benjamin knows the challenges involved in providing quality, primary care to underinsured and uninsured patients. When she began working on the Gulf Coast of Alabama after medical school, it was to fulfill her obligation to the National Health Service Corps. In an interview several years ago with Tulane magazine, Benjamin said she likely would have ended up in a rural area even if she wasn’t obligated.

“I just like this type of medicine,” she said. “I’ve always had this strong social conscience and sense of social responsibility.”

During the announcement ceremony, Benjamin said:

I am honored, and I am humbled, to be nominated to serve as United States surgeon general. This is a physician’s dream.

But for me it’s more than just a job. Public health issues are very personal to me. My father died with diabetes and hypertension. My older brother and only sibling died at age 44 of HIV-related illness. My mother died of lung cancer because as a young girl she wanted to smoke, just like her twin brother could.

My Uncle Buddy, my mother’s twin, who’s one of the few surviving black World War II prisoners of war, is at home right now on oxygen, struggling for each breath, because of the years of smoking.

My family’s not here with me today — at least not in person — because of preventable diseases. While I can’t — or I cannot change my family’s past, I can be a voice in the movement to improve our nation’s health care and our nation’s health for the future.

Writing at the Wall Street Journal, Jacob Goldstein looks for the symbolism in Obama’s choice and connects Benjamin’s work to U.S. healthcare discussions underway.

“Of course, there is a danger in looking too hard for symbolism and reading too much into Benjamin’s resume,” writes Goldstein. “Sanjay Gupta was offered the job earlier this year and turned it down. The symbolism of a surgeon general who was a neurosurgeon who got famous by going on CNN would, obviously, have been rather different than the symbols of Benjamin’s story.”

Plus: When The New York Times announced the selection Monday morning, it didn’t take long for commenters to focus on Benjamin’s weight, with some even charging that she is obese and thus unfit for this public role. Grrr.

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